Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Friday, 22 February 2013

Lucy Telford's 'Self 1'

Lucy Telford's 'Self 1'. You can find the original by linking here

So here we have a photogram of a doll, it is on the surface a simple picture, sure it's slightly distorted, but we shouldn't dismiss it lightly as some wilful abstraction. It's the kind of photograph within which we have to make our own associations based on sparse clues, not a simple story and certainly beyond mere illustration. It is thankfully one of the few photographs (as are many of her's) that I'd want to spend time living with, pondering and thinking and being moved.

There is something profound at foot here, but what exactly, is to some extent a matter of personal interpretation. Lucy is not the kind of artist to preach on high with simple tales that are easily grasped in the short time frames of mass consumption engendered by social media. They stop me in my tracks and challenge me to think and engage. To wrestle with disentangling its meaning. The most obvious is the title ’Self 1’, this is meant to be seen as a self portrait.

Why a doll? There's an element of the shared experience here - we all had dolls of some description as children and our children still play with them now, even in the modern electronic age. There's something profound about a doll, something Jungian even in that depiction of a tiny, plastic, fragile person. But more than that: does the choice of a doll depict in some ways the objectification of women? There's certainly an element of physical idealism in the slim, long legged fragility here. It's as women are expected to look if they are to conform to the social forces that surround us in our everyday lives. From billboard models to ’pop princess’ we are constantly barraged with this imagery. Plus there's the fact of us looking, it's a knowing reference to the visual consumption of the image. It's as if we are complicit in a guilty secret more so because it is deeply personal and to some extent revelatory.

What other clues are there?
Perhaps the most striking is the blue haze surrounding the doll. This is not as far as I know a normal result of the process when laying objects on photographic paper. Again there’s deliberateness here.  It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see the ’doll’ as if it's trapped in sadness. A shroud of pain, whilst the light exists beyond.

Then there are the apparent stigmata on the upturned hands. That position is deliberate, unnatural and asking us to look. Again it's a symbol of suffering, but perhaps a willing suffering as Christ being crucified to cleanse mankind of sin. Does this perhaps represent her role as mother and carer? Or does it hint at something deeper, darker something from the past that is carried with her? We cannot say for sure, it is one more element to ponder.

And yet this doll is faceless, again this references the objectification of women where bodies are considered above the person. Where women are seen as objects of consumption by men. Not as real people with personalities, histories and emotional lives of their own. But this is both faceless and distorted, perhaps forced by some pressure of life, squeezed in an unwilling direction.

Finally there is the process - the image wasn't fixed it has been allowed to fade naturally. This electronic record is all we have remaining. This is the artist engaging with process on a far more profound level than many can conceive. Quite what allowing oneself to disappear means to Lucy I don't know for certain. Perhaps it's a wish for release, perhaps even death. Or maybe a simple putting behind her the past or present, a time to move on, forge ahead and look forward hopefully?

We are dealing with allegory here, symbolism, metaphor, surrealism and the archetype.  A story is being told, we are allowed glimpses, but not the full story. Perhaps more will be revealed in later works in the series? Maybe, but we will always need to examine the clues in her work and to an extent we are given liberty to find our own associations and meanings, to engage on our own terms. This is after all a work of art. Art in the truest sense, that is about engaging ourselves.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Art that matters.

"Nowhere is it inscribed on stone tablets that art made even in the service of God reveals larger truths, or adds greater authenticity, than what is captured in honest work of any flavour. Over the course of our lives, the need repeatedly arises in each of us to make peace with the world with our work, and with ourselves. When that happens, our internal compass directs us naturally to the course we are meant to take, and "art" issues simply fall away. Coming amid the usual turbulence of life, such periods of grace and clarity (however fleeting) bring as well the realisation that making art matter, and making art that matters, are two sides of the same coin. Art will matter when it once again concerns itself with issues that matter, when it once again arises naturally at the points where art and life intersect, when it once again demonstrates that making art is the way we manifest being human."
Ted Orland, The View from the Studio Door.
(Ted was a former teacher on Ansel Adams' workshops and used to produce mostly "fine art" black and white landscapes. He is also the co-author of Art & Fear with David Bayles)

Friday, 16 November 2012

My views on landscape photography

Below is a series of Tweets I posted on Friday 16th of November outlining my opinions about landscape photography.
As these will inevitably become mangled by the Chinese whispers of the Twittersphere, here they are in full.

As some people seem determined to misrepresent my opinions, here is a clarification.

90% of landscape photography I see is dull, regurgitated, amateurish and shallow.

Which is fine if you're a beginner, I've been there, I understand.

But part of the problem is the clubbish, unchallenging attitude that surrounds the scene.

Which is tolerant of an artless, simplistic ’hobbyist’ approach.

Part of my artistic progression is to criticise both where I came from and the work of others.

It is essential. We cannot do anything worthwhile without having opinions.

A very small minority of landscape photography impresses me.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is either patronising, naive, lying or bought.

My approach is 'wake up people, smell the coffee'.

Most are missing out on a wonderful opportunities for personal expression.

When we describe ourselves as artists it is simply to say that we believe meaning can extend beyond the surface.

It is not self aggrandising or setting ourselves apart as ’other’. It is sharing the journey.

I wish someone had told my past self this. I would have felt more supported in my progress and less alone.

If you find that patronising, superior or offensive, please feel free to unfollow me.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A poem on a misty morning

I guess the landscape chums are out there
shooting in their quarries
wandering like ghosts in the half morning light.
Big-game hunters of the seasons, capturing
artificial recollections
with artifice and guile, the pursuit
of a freeze frame memory.

They follow with a religious fervour
a self deception
that they believe will set them free;
a collective pursuit of trophies
to fade upon the wall.
To be replaced like old clothes,
tattered and neglected
by newer, bigger, better
more perfected pictures
to fade upon the wall.

In a world of aperture, film stock and memory cards
they neglect to open their hearts and minds.
They craft memories from what they have seen before.

And yet in their constructed worlds
they fail to see
that memories are only part of what mankind be.
Missing the complexity of who we are,
how we connect
with this world of possibility.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Some thoughts on the artistic implications of LOPTY 2012.

When I first caught glimpse of what was the original winner of this year's Landscape Photographer of the Year - admittedly a small image on my phone - I was quietly impressed, it seemed to have many qualities I would look for in a landscape photograph and in my naïveté not the least of these was an unusual degree of originality and passion.

Now David Byrne has been disqualified for breaking the rules of LPOTY. His sin? Overt digital manipulation, which is explicitly against the rules of the competition. While everyone seems to think this process should be banned I have some thoughts on this which may go a little way to widening the discussion from the purely technical issues and the obvious dishonesty of the entry.

A digitally created image is no less a piece of art than a painting. Digital art has been around for years and is even gaining some degree of acceptance in the art world, painting after all has little relationship with reality either. They both spring (to a greater or lesser degree) from the imagination of the creator. A little manipulation to prettify a scene strikes me as a minor sin in this context, except, of course, where competitions explicitly forbid it. It's not a bad thing intrinsically if the creator is open and honest about it. But if he/she is denying its existence and using it as a lie to make their photography look better, then it is rather more questionable.

On top of this is the question of degrees of separation. How many purists use use no photoshop at all I wonder, if not with an actual intent to deceive? At the end of the day and outside the realms of this competition it's always a personal decision as to how much we use. For the most part that for me the digital equivalent of darkroom techniques, but let's not forget how even they can be extreme and transformative to the finished image. This question of the 'photographic’ representation of a scene is just not as simple as many seem to think. And let's not forget that compositing images is as valid a darkroom technique as any other. It has a long and honourable history and tradition and has produced significant works of art. One only has to look at the work of Jerry Uelsmann to realise this.

Stepping back from the arguments that have been raging around this (I can't but help think that nobody has stopped to think about the broader context) as with all things artistic we should be open to the question of its value as art, it's purpose or intent.

All photography is manipulation, whether you choose film or digital, are a technical wizard or a master of craft. We all edit the real world simply by pointing our camera at a tiny part of it. Not to mention your choice of lens, film, exposure time, aperture etc, etc. When it's printed or seen on a screen it's not real anymore it has been transformed by the hands of the photographer. That for me is why I love photography, it is it's transformative potential that excites me. Even just choosing where we point the camera can reveal much more about the subject and the photographer.

Quite why digital manipulation is the reason he was excluded over the issue of copying someone else's work is perhaps the most shocking outcome of the whole episode for me. It reveals the empty nature of so much of landscape photography far more incisively than a mere clone tool.

I'm more than happy to allow that there is a stage in most of our creativity that involves copying the work of others, to a greater or lesser degree. I've been through it and I wouldn't mind betting the vast majority of the readers of this blog have too. It's part of the process of learning. And I'll also allow that the judges weren't aware of the original - I wasn't. But doesn't it seem odd that the judges should be rewarding someone still at that early level of their creative journey? Surely at the very least the winning image should be all their own work, should have come from some form of personal insight and vision? It is after all just one image they have to choose.

It seems to me that this reveals fundamental flaws in the structure of the competition. I know so many landscape photographers who are straining every sinew of their mind and body to achieve that grail of the personal vision, yet it seems the majority of them think this is no longer the competition for them and will not enter. That includes myself.

The problem is that the competition is essentially a commercial proposition - that they profit from the greatest numbers of entrants. We all know, inside, the only way to appreciate a photographer's art and craft is to follow their work, probably over many years. To see the slow incremental development of their vision, and to realise it has unique qualities not shared by others. That's a tough proposition if you have to sift through the work of thousands upon thousands of unknown entrants.

On a final note, if you despise digital manipulation then you should most probably despise my Songs of Travel series as well. It is created digitally, although mimicking the idea of multiple exposure in camera. But it just wouldn't be possible to take the numbers of exposures that I use if I was using film. I've had many people who seem to like the project asking how I create the images, yet very few who seek to understand why. Yet I developed the techniques to tell the story I wanted to tell, about how we really experience the landscape outside the artistic sphere; it is about travelling, time, remembering and forgetting. For me this illuminates the problem, if technique predominates it is style over substance, nothing more. What is most important is purpose, not style.

Just because a camera excels at doing one thing - capturing the scene before you - it doesn't mean that's all it can do. Most notably it can also be used to illustrate what is in your head, your thoughts, ideas and emotions. So don't tie one creative hand behind your back because of this. Creativity is potentially boundless, make your own decisions, but make them well.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The dangers of genre photography

I had an interesting discussion online recently with Mike Jackson, Lucy Telford and Tim Parkin. Mike posed the question "why do I think of myself as a landscape photographer?". Mike expressed the opinion that the most successful photographers in landscape like Michael Kenna have their own unique style and are simply thought of as "photographers" rather than "landscape photographers". Tim's argument was that landscape is big enough to embrace everyone from the most creative to the most conventional.  At the time I thought this has considerable weight, but having had some time to ruminate over it, I'm no longer so sure and this is because of how genres work in practice. I shall explain...

In case you haven't noticed landscape is what I do, it's is my creative impetus, subject and something I have a very strong personal relationship with. But does that qualify me as a landscape photographer? I have also dabbled in street / social documentary, so obviously I already straddle a number of genres, but realistically the last 3-4 years have been purely landscape. There's still a nagging doubt though that I'm doing something which is mine alone, not really conforming to any particular genre anymore.

Photographers rarely start out as identifying themselves  with a particular genre, they probably don't even think of themselves as photographers in the early days. Most just think of themselves as people using cameras. For the vast majority this is enough, they don't progress any further. But it does seem that most of us who take photography seriously end up saying "this is me, this is what I want to do" at some stage in our photographic progression.

So why do we sign up to genres? Why do we choose to associate ourselves with particular genres, be they landscape, street, social documentary, portraiture or whatever? Obviously starting out as a photographer is a difficult place to be, there's a whole world of possibilities to choose from, subjects to choose and styles to be chosen. It's much more comfortable to focus our energies in one particular direction, or subject, once we've found what interests us the job becomes that much easier. The creative choices have narrowed and a great deal of creative energy is usually stimulated by having creative focus.

Often within each genre we find there is a community of like minded individuals who are happy to share their knowledge insights and passions. Choosing a genre is a good place to be, supportive, sometimes challenging and inspirational. We find other photographers doing things  we aspire to, we learn a great deal. As we progress further, deeper into our chosen area we may even begin to find something more personal to express, our own angle, our own take on that genre.

So what can possibly go wrong? Well as any truly creative, original visual artist will tell you (or should tell you!) the real value in art is having ideas of your own. For the very same reasons as we sign up to a genre - the comfort of finding something we associate with, the narrowing of creative focus and the choice of a subject area - we are discarding much of our artistic potential.

Most genuinely imaginative artists I talk to exist in very much the same state as the beginner, the constant doubt, self criticism, and wondering how to express themselves in a way that is both personally satisfying and reaches out to a potential audience. They don't have a ready made yardstick to measure themselves against, it is about their personal motivation and satisfaction. The act of questioning is perhaps the most important part of that journey, it's why they push boundaries and create unique work.

Genre photographers of all sorts, have to a large extent bought into a way of seeing and expressing, they find unwritten rules and codifications about how they should fit in, conform and what, why and how we take what we have chosen. This isn't to say there isn't potential for those working within genres to produce original, striking and creative work, but it is partly why the vast majority will always be derivative, sterile and lacking in creative weight.

The real problem in associating ourselves with a genre is that the intellectual heavy lifting has been done for us. By buying into a way seeing we are buying into a way of thinking. It's as if we don't have to think very deeply anymore, we have given up part of the struggle, and yet struggle and internal conflict are key to the creative process.  Unless we are willing to cross boundaries, stretch possibilities and be true to ourselves then our work will inevitably suffer.

I have often said and heard it said by people I admire that much of the creative possibilities lie in the "gaps between", exploring crossovers, combinations and ideas that others haven't yet found. I'm not really sure these days if I actually think like that as part of my creative process, but I will admit it has some weight in abstract intellectual terms. This is because even that way of thinking doesn't represent the motivations which drive me, the concepts that I develop are becoming far more personal and specific. Genres don't matter anymore.

Perhaps being a genre photographer should only be a stage we go through until we find ways of expressing ourselves, not others' perspectives? Could it be that after dabbling in genres the only true route to creativity is to return ourselves to the state of the beginner, albeit with a considerably high technical and creative skill set? To be able to see beyond the genre, to create work which is honest to our own imagination probably means we won't end up working within a genre anymore. We will become just photographers again.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Christopher Isherwood quote

"A few times in my life I've had moments of absolute clarity. When for a few seconds the silence drowns out the noise, and I can feel rather than think. And things feel so sharp and the world seems so fresh. It's as though it had all just come into existence. I can never make these moments last, I cling to them, but like everything they fade. I've lived my life on these moments, they pull me back to the present and I realise that everything is exactly the way it's meant to be." Christopher Isherwood.